The Meaning of Thanksgiving

by Robert Jensen, Alex Doherty

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. New Left Project’s Alex Doherty talked to him about Thanksgiving, the murder of indigenous people and the theft of their land by European colonialists.

You choose not to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday and you have urged other Americans to do the same. Can you explain why you oppose this celebration?

For years I had felt uncomfortable at Thanksgiving Day dinners, not just because of the gluttonous consumption but because of the disjuncture between my evolving radical political ideas and the distortion of history embedded in the holiday. As it became increasingly difficult for me to be “normal” on that day, I struggled to understand why and what to do about it.

Here’s what I eventually came to understand: Thanksgiving Day is part of the national mythology that obscures the reality of the European/American genocide against indigenous people. White America tells a lovely story about the English Pilgrims—their search for freedom took them to Massachusetts, where aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims’ first winter.

Some aspects of the conventional story are accurate, but by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the genocidal project that opened up additional land to the English invaders. That was the beginning of the conquest of the entire continent, until 95 to 99 percent of American Indianshad been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations.

That is the American holocaust, and the Thanksgiving story wraps that holocaust in fantasies of innocence. Instead of celebrating a day of thanksgiving, we should be observing a day of atonement. In short, Thanksgiving Day is holocaust denial.

Defenders of Thanksgiving often argue that whatever the original meaning of the holiday for many it is now a rare chance to spend time with family and to show appreciation for what one has. What is your view?

Even in radical circles where that basic critique of the genocide is accepted, only a relatively small number of people argue that we should renounce the holiday and refuse to celebrate it. Most leftists who celebrate Thanksgiving claim that they can individually redefine the holiday in a politically progressive fashion in private, which is an illusory dodge: We don’t define holidays individually or privately—holidays are rooted in a collective, shared meaning. When the dominant culture defines a holiday in a certain fashion, one can’t magically redefine it in private. To pretend that is possible is intellectually dishonest, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt.

The argument about spending time with family is a rationalization. We can show appreciation for the material comforts we enjoy by coming to terms with the crimes that allowed us to have them, which can be done collectively. Families could spend time together reflecting on that history and the contemporary consequences. We could dump Thanksgiving Day for a Day of Atonement without losing that time together.

It is often argued that we cannot condemn the early American settlers by the standards of our own time. What do you make of that claim?

First, we should remember that not all people alive at that time endorsed genocide. Indigenous people fought wars, but they typically did not engage in the wholesale slaughter of anyone who got in their way. And within European society there were dissenting voices, such as Tom Paine, the most radically democratic of the “founding fathers” (and, hence, the founding father most ignored).

But that’s really not relevant to the question we face today. My critique of Thanksgiving is not aimed at condemning people in the past but dealing with history in the present. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we decide to make no moral judgment of the Europeans who committed or endorsed genocidal policies. The question today is whether we celebrate a holiday that covers up the genocide, whether we routinely lie about that history.

My focus is not on the standards of the past but our intellectual, political, and moral standards today. The crimes of the United States are, of course, not confined to centuries past. The genocide of indigenous people and African slavery are particularly gruesome aspects of U.S. history, but the large-scale assault on other peoples and cultures to expand the wealth of elites in the United States has continued up to this day. The U.S. wars of empire—covert and overt—in Latin America, southern Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia have produced millions of corpses and left societies in ruins. If we can’t be honest about the past, we won’t be able to tell the truth about the present, which increases the likelihood of repeating the crimes in the future.

You have claimed that a close parallel to the conquest of America is the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe. To many that will seem an outlandish and even an offensive comparison - can you explain why you think it is apt comparison?

I’m not comparing the events but rather the reaction to them. Here’s my argument I have made: Imagine that Germany had won World War II and that a Nazi regime endured for some decades, eventually giving way to a more liberal state with a softer version of German-supremacist ideology. Imagine that a century later, Germans celebrated a holiday based on a sanitized version of German/Jewish history that ignored that holocaust and the deep anti-Semitism of the culture. Would we not question the distortions woven into such a celebration and denounce such a holiday as grotesque?

Now, imagine that left/liberal Germans—those who were critical of the power structure that created that distorted history and who in other settings would challenge the political uses of those distortions—put aside their critique and celebrated the holiday with their fellow citizens, claiming that they could change the meaning of the holiday in private. Would we not question that claim?

Comparisons to the Nazis are routinely overused and typically hyperbolic, but this is directly analogous. When I offer this critique in left/liberal circles, some people acknowledge that the argument is valid but make it clear they will continue to celebrate Thanksgiving. Others get angry and accuse me of posturing. It’s not posturing, but rather a struggle to understand how to live in a culture that cannot tell the truth.

How significant is Thanksgiving - what are some of the negative effects of continuing to deny the American holocaust?

Thanksgiving is, by itself, not all that important. What does matter is the denial of history at the heart of Thanksgiving, which is commonplace in the United States, especially in education and media. After years of talking about this, I have come to the conclusion that the dominant culture cannot come to terms with two realities: Without the genocide of indigenous people, there would be no United States. Without African slavery, the United States would not have so quickly become the dominant industrial nation in the world. That means that the wealth concentrated in the United States is the direct result of two of the most grotesque crimes in recorded human history, perpetrated by the nation that claims to be the birthplace of modern democracy. The contradictions of this seem to be too much for the culture to absorb. My hope is that Thanksgiving could be a day set aside for facing that contradiction.

Surely leftists and radicals should give some priority to interventions where they face decent prospects of connecting with those beyond its ranks. However, it seems unlikely that a boycott of Thanksgiving would resonate with much of the American population and, moreover, it might throw up even more cultural barriers between those on the left and the rest of society. How do you respond to this line of thought?

I’m not arguing that the left should initiate a boycott of Thanksgiving aimed at the general public. I have for years wanted to hold an alternative Thanksgiving public event, but I haven’t done it precisely because I cannot figure out how to make it politically viable. So, for now, I’m only talking about the need for an honest conversation within the left and targeted outreach in our discussions with friends and family. In my experience, many people feel uncomfortable with the holiday, and we should not be afraid to talk about the sources of that discomfort. The discussion about Thanksgiving can be a route into a conversation about the importance of a left analysis more generally.

Links to past writing on the subject:
2005: http://www.alternet.org/story/28584/
2007: http://www.alternet.org/story/68170/why_we_shouldn%27t_celebrate_thanksgiving/
2009: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/11/15-2

Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html To jo.in an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html

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First published: 25 November, 2010

Category: History, International

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9 Comments on "The Meaning of Thanksgiving"

By Susan Meeker-Lowry, on 25 November 2010 - 16:31 |

If I remember correctly, when I lived in Vermont friends of mine, Native and non-native went to an “alternative” Thanksgiving in or near Plymouth, MA where the true meaning of this holiday, as Jensen describes, was the theme. I don’t know if this still happens or not.

By Jamie, on 25 November 2010 - 17:13 |

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccj2BH25c0I&feature=player_embedded

By Chris, on 25 November 2010 - 17:41 |

An interesting question concerning the ability to transform a holiday.  There was more than two hundred years between the “original” Thanksgiving and the declaration of the holiday officially by Lincoln in 1863, where he described it as a “day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.” There was no official national day, but individual states, cities and towns began to pick out a particular day every year, usually in the autumn. During the Revolutionary war Thanksgiving Days were proclaimed to celebrate victory in battle or survival in the face of adversity. So there have been varied celebrations and meanings up to this point. Can society not separate thanksgiving  into a holiday of thanks rather than a set of abhorrent events that took place largely after the “original feast”?

By jeff, on 26 November 2010 - 15:33 |

I would be more interested in the likes of Prof Jensen abandoning their salaries, pensions, tenure and social status as academics at institutions such as University of Texas that are overtly/covertly integral components in the military/industrial apparatus and whose efforts serve to continue to commit the crimes that Jensen is decrying.

The reality is many so called ‘radical’ leftists/progressives are deeply involved in constructing corporate, military and economic power with one hand while pretending to be opposed to it with the other.  This is ultimately providing material support to the enemy but of course Jensen, et al would not see it as this….since he benefits materially/socially from the arrangement.

By Adrian, on 26 November 2010 - 20:55 |

I don’t know if I agree with that, without resorting to violence it is virtually impossible to exist outside of a system. Furthermore it is unfair to compare professors, who don’t really get paid that much, to profiteering industrialists.

In Canada, thanksgiving doesn’t have the same connotations. No parallel sanitization of our history exists. And frankly I have a hard time understanding why thanksgiving should be attached to this period of time, as Chris points out the Pilgrim story seems to be a relatively modern invention. Harvest festivals are very common through out Europe, in their varying forms, and frankly I think we, North Americans, need to stress our dependance on the land, without we have nothing.

But that said, this is a very important topic, but as the article says do we really need an excuse to discuss it? What limits the conversation of this topic to Thanksgiving weekend?

By MKB29, on 24 November 2011 - 00:38 |

Regarding Jeff’s remarks:

Who is the “enemy” to which “radical” leftists is contributing? Perhaps Jeff is trying to say that professors shoiuldn’t exist, since it is true that the institutions in which they are working may indeed have ties to “the system”.  I suppose he would be happy if the lioes of (radical left leaning) professors would just go away. In fact, Jensen is trying to undo what his or other similar institutions are doing when they support our government’s wars against other nations, the environment, and a beneficial society for the great majority of the people. Praise be to him. 

By Jane McKee, on 24 November 2011 - 00:45 |

This reminds me of the few, sad children who’s parents will not let them celebrate Halloween because it has Pagan roots.  That is not what Halloween means to children - nor is Thanksgiving, to many, about the Pilgrims and the Native People.  It is about being thankful for food, family and friends, no matter what your religion or lack thereof.  In schools all over America, children are asked to write essays on what they are thankful for - a meaningful activity for children who often take things for granted.  Thanksgiving follows in the footsteps of centuries of harvest festivals celebrated by people all over the world.  We should teach our children the truth about what Europeans did to the Native Americans, but we can do it without bashing a holiday that asks us not to take what we have for granted.

By Anne Ryan, on 24 November 2011 - 01:25 |

Much of this is celebration of memories. And the memories of those celebrating the holiday are memories of time with family, grandparents long gone etc and the innocence of childhood. When you do not factor in the real innocence of children’s memories, the seeds for misplaced resentment are sown.
We were sold a bill of goods as children . We need to keep the sense of harvest celebration and ditch the phony stories.
Education beats obliteration.
We should expose fully the truth of our sins of genocide and celebrate the gifts given to ALL of us. white ,brown and black and many legged and winged as well. That is he path to becoming ONE worthy planet.

By James O'Neill, on 28 November 2013 - 17:55 |

Nobody pays any attention to that Thanksgiving Pilgrim-Indian myth, so this essay is really just hot air. Thanksgiving instead is celebrated as a pre-winter feast. Period.

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